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Benjamin Banneker, The Negro Astronomer - The Atlantic

In these days, when strong interests, embodied in fierce parties, are clashing, one recalls the French proverb of those who make so much noise that you cannot hear God thunder. It does not take much noise to drown the notes of a violin; but go to the hill a fourth of a mile off, and the noises shall die away at its base, whilst the music shall be heard. Those who can remove themselves away from and above the plane of party-din can hear God's modulated thunder in the midst of it, uttering ever a "certain tune and measured music." And such can hear now the great voice at the sepulchre's door of a race, saying, Come forth! This war is utterly inexplicable except as the historic method of delivering the African race in America from slavery, and this nation from the crime and curse inevitably linked therewith in the counsels of God, which are the laws of Nature. If the friends of freedom in the Government do not understand this, it is plain enough that the myrmidons of slavery throughout the land understand it. And hence it is that we are witnessing their unremitting efforts to exasperate the prejudices of the vulgar against the negro, and to prove degradation, and slavery to be his normal condition. They point to his figure as sculptured on ancient monuments, bearing chains, and claim that his enslavement is lawful as immemorial custom; but as well point to the brass collars on our Saxon forefathers' necks to prove their enslavement lawful. The fact that slavery belonged to a patriarchal age is the very reason why it is impracticable in a republican age,—as its special guardians in this country seem to have discovered. But this question is now scarcely actual. The South, by its first blow against the Union and the Constitution, whose neutrality toward it was its last and only protection from the spirit of the age, did, like the simple fisherman, unseal the casket in which the Afreet had been so long dwarfed. He is now escaping. Thus far, indeed, he is so much escaped force; for he might be bearing our burdens for us, if we only rubbed up the lamp which the genie obeys. But whether we shall do this or not, it is very certain that he is now emerging from the sea and the casket, and into it will descend no more. Henceforth the negro is to take his place in the family of races; and no studies can be more suitable to our times than those which recognize his special capacity.

The questions raised by military exigencies have brought before the public the many interesting facts drawn from the history of Hayti and from our own Revolution, showing the heroism of the negro, though we doubt whether they can surpass the stories of Tatnall, Small, and others, which have led a high European authority to observe that in this war no individual heroism among the whites has equalled that of the blacks. But the forthcoming social questions concerning the negro will be even more exciting than the military. What are we to expect from the unsealed Afreet,—good or evil? It was whilst studying in this direction that I came upon the few facts which relate to Benjamin Banneker,—facts which, though not difficult of access, are scarcely known beyond the district in Maryland where, on the spot where he was born, his unadorned grave receives now and then a visit from some pilgrim of his own race who has found out the nobleness which Jefferson recognized and Condorcet admired.

Benjamin Banneker was born in Baltimore County, near the village of Ellicott's Mills, in the year 1732. There was not a drop of the white man's blood in his veins. His father was born in Africa, and his mother's parents were both natives of Africa. What genius he had, then, must be credited to that race. Benjamin's mother was a remarkable woman, and of a remarkable family. Her name was Morton, before marriage, and a nephew of hers, Greenbury Morton, was gifted with a lively and impetuous eloquence which made its mark in his neighborhood. Of him it is related that he once came to a certain election-precinct in Baltimore County to deposit his vote; for, prior to the year 1809, negroes with certain property-qualifications voted in Maryland. It was in this year, in which the law restricting the right of voting to free whites was passed, that Morton, who had not heard of its passage, came to the polls. When his vote was refused, Morton in a state of excitement took his stand on a door-step, and was immediately surrounded by the crowd, whom he addressed in a strain of passionate and prophetic eloquence which bore all hearts and minds with him. He warned them that the new law was a step backward from the standard which their fathers had raised in the Declaration, and which they had hoped would soon be realized in universal freedom; that that step, unless retraced, would end in bitter and remorseless revolutions. The crowd was held in breathless attention, and none were found to favor the new law.

This man, we have said, was the nephew of Benjamin's mother. She was a woman of remarkable energy, and after she was seventy years of age was accustomed to run down the chickens she wished to catch. Her husband was a slave when she married him, but it was a very small part of her life's task to purchase his freedom. Together they soon bought a farm of one hundred acres, which we find conveyed by Richard Gist to Robert Bannaky, (as the name was then spelt,) and Benjamin Bannaky, his son, (then five years old,) on the tenth of March, 1737, for the consideration of seven thousand pounds of tobacco. The region in which Benjamin was born was almost a wilderness; for in 1732 Elkridge Landing was of more importance than Baltimore; and even in 1754 this city consisted only of some twenty poor houses straggling on the hills to the right of Jones's Falls. The residence of the Bannekers was ten miles into the wilderness from these.

It was under these unpromising circumstances that little Benjamin grew up, his destiny being apparently nothing more than to work on the little farm beside his poor and ignorant parents. When he was approaching manhood, he went, in the intervals of toil, to an obscure and remote country-school; for, until the cotton-gin made negroes too valuable on the animal side for the human side to be allowed anything so perilous as education, there were to be found here and there in the South fountains whereat even negroes might slake their thirst for learning. At this school Benjamin acquired a knowledge of reading and writing, and advanced in arithmetic as far as "Double Position." Beyond these rudiments he was entirely his own teacher. After leaving school he had to labor constantly for his own support; but he lost nothing of what he had acquired. It is a frequent remark that up to a certain point the negroes learn even more rapidly than white children under the same teaching, but that afterward, in the higher branches, they are slow, and, some maintain, incapable. Young Banneker had no books at all, but in the midst of his labor he so improved upon and evolved what he had gained in arithmetic that his intelligence became a matter of general observation. He was such an acute observer of the natural world, and had so diligently observed the signs of the times in society, that it is very doubtful whether at forty years of age this African had his superior in Maryland.

Perhaps the first wonder amongst his comparatively illiterate neighbors was excited, when, about the thirtieth year of his age, Benjamin made a clock. It is probable that this was the first clock of which every portion was made in America; it is certain that it was as purely his own invention as if none had ever been made before. He had seen a watch, but never a clock, such an article not being within fifty miles of him. The watch was his model. He was a long time at work on the clock,—his chief difficulty, as he used often to relate, being to make the hour, minute, and second hands correspond in their motion. But at last the work was completed, and raised the admiration for Banneker to quite a high pitch among his few neighbors.

The making of the clock proved to be of great importance in assisting the young man to fulfil his destiny. It attracted the attention of the Ellicott family, who had just begun a settlement at Ellicott's Mills. They were well-educated men, with much mechanical knowledge, and some of them Quakers. They sought out the ingenious negro, and he could not have fallen into better hands. It was in 1787 that Benjamin received from Mr. George Ellicott Mayer's "Tables," Ferguson's "Astronomy," and Leadbetter's "Lunar Tables." Along with these, some astronomical instruments, also, were given him. Mr. Ellicott, prevented from telling Benjamin anything concerning the use of the instruments for some time after they were given, went over to repair this omission one day, but found that the negro had discovered all about them and was already quite independent of instruction. From this time astronomy became the great object of Banneker's life, and in its study he almost disappeared from the sight of his neighbors. He was unmarried, and lived alone in the cabin and on the farm which he had inherited from his parents. He had still to labor for his living; but he so simplified his wants as to be enabled to devote the greater portion of his time to astronomical studies. He slept much during the day, that he might the more devotedly observe at night the heavenly bodies whose laws he was slowly, but surely, mastering.

And now he began to have a taste of that persecution to which every genius under similar circumstances is subject. He was no longer seen in the field, where formerly his constancy had gained him a reputation for industry, and some who called at his cabin during the day-time found him asleep; so he began to be spoken of as a lazy fellow, who would come to no good, and whose age would disappoint the promise of his youth. There was a time when this so excited his neighbors against him that he had serious fears of disturbance. A memorandum in his hand-writing, dated December 18, 1790, states:—

"——— ———informed me that ——— stole my horse and great-coat, and that the said ——— intended to murder me when opportunity presented. ——— ——— gave me a caution to let no one come into my house after dark."

The names were originally written in full; but they were afterward carefully cancelled, as though Banneker had reflected that it was wrong to leave on record an unauthenticated assertion against an individual, which, if untrue, might prejudice him by the mere fact that it had been made.

Very soon after the possession of the books already mentioned, Banneker determined to compile an almanac, that being the most familiar use that occurred to him of the information he had acquired. To make an almanac was a very different thing then from what it would be now, when there is an abundance of accurate tables and rules. Banneker had no aid whatever from men or tables; and Mr. George Ellicott, who procured some tables and took them to him, states that he had advanced far in the preparation of the logarithms necessary for his purpose. A memorandum in his calculations at this time thus corrects an error in Ferguson's Astronomy:—

"It appears to me that the wisest men may at times be in error: for instance, Dr. Ferguson informs us, that, when the sun is within 12° of either node at the time of full, the moon will be eclipsed; but I find, that, according to his method of projecting a lunar eclipse, there will be none by the above elements, and yet the sun is within 11° 46' 11" of the moon's ascending node. But the moon being in her apogee prevents the appearance of this eclipse."

Another memorandum makes the following corrections:—

"Errors that ought to be corrected in my Astronomical Tables are these:—2d vol. Leadbetter, p. 201, when [symbol] anomaly is 4^s 30°, the equation 3° 30' 41" ought to have been 3° 28' 41". In [symbol] equation, p. 155, the logarithm of his distance from [symbol] ought to have been 6 in the second place from the index, instead of 7, that is, from the time that his anomaly is 3^s 24° until it is 4^s O°."

Both Ferguson and Leadbetter would have been amazed, had they been informed that their elaborate works had been reviewed and corrected by a negro in the then unheard-of valley of the Patapsco.

The first almanac prepared by Banneker for publication was for the year 1792. By this time his acquirements had become generally known, and amongst those who were attracted by them was James McHenry, Esq. Mr. McHenry wrote to Goddard and Angell, then the almanac-publishers of Baltimore, and procured the publication of this work, which contained, from the pen of Mr. McHenry, a brief notice of Banneker. In their editorial notice Goddard and Angell say, "They feel gratified in the opportunity of presenting to the public through their press what must be considered as an extraordinary effort of genius,—a complete and accurate Ephemeris for the year 1792, calculated by a sable son of Africa," etc. And they further say that "they flatter themselves that a philanthropic public, in this enlightened era, will be induced to give their patronage and support to this work, not only on account of its intrinsic merits, (it having met the approbation of several of the most distinguished astronomers of America, particularly the celebrated Mr. Rittenhouse,) but from similar motives to those which induced the editors to give this calculation the preference, the ardent desire of drawing modest merit from obscurity, and controverting the long-established illiberal prejudice against the blacks."

Banneker was himself entirely conscious of the bearings of his case upon the position of his people; and though remarkable for an habitual modesty, he solemnly claimed that his works had earned respect for the African race. In this spirit he wrote to Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State under Washington, transmitting a manuscript copy of his almanac. The letter is a fervent appeal for the down-trodden negro, and a protest against the injustice and inconsistency of the United States toward that color. Mr. Jefferson's reply is as follows:—

"Philadelphia, Pa., August 30, 1791.

"Sir,—I thank you sincerely for your letter of the 19th instant, and for the almanac it contained. Nobody wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that Nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing only to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa and America. I can add with truth that no one wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body and mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecility of their present existence, and other circumstances which cannot be neglected, will admit. I have taken the liberty of sending your almanac to Monsieur de Condorcet, Secretary of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, and Member of the Philanthropic Society, because I considered it a document to which your whole color had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them.

"I am, with great esteem, Sir,

"Your most obedient serv't,


When his first almanac was published, Banneker was fifty-nine years of age, and had received tokens of respect from all the scientific men of the country. The commissioners appointed after the adoption of the Constitution in 1789 to run the lines of the District of Columbia invited the presence and assistance of Banneker, and treated him as an equal. They invited him to take a seat at their table; but he declined, and requested a separate table.

Banneker continued to calculate and publish almanacs until the year 1802. Besides numerous valuable astronomical and mathematical notes found amongst his papers are observations of passing events, showing that he had the mind of a philosopher. For instance:—

"27th Aug. 1797. Standing at my door, I heard the discharge of a gun, and in four or five seconds of time the small shot came rattling about me, one or two of which struck the house; which plainly demonstrates that the velocity of sound is greater than that of a cannon-bullet."

"23d Dec. 1790. About 3 o'clock A.M., I heard a sound and felt a shock like unto heavy thunder. I went out, but could not observe any cloud. I therefore conclude it must be a great earthquake in some part of the globe."

In April, 1800, he writes:—

"The first great locust year that I can remember was 1749. I was then about seventeen years of age, when thousands of them came creeping up the trees. I imagined they came to destroy the fruit of the earth, and would occasion a famine in the land. I therefore began to destroy them, but soon saw that my labor was in vain. Again, in the year 1766, seventeen years after their first appearance, they made a second. I then, being about thirty-four years of age, had more sense than to endeavor to destroy them, knowing they were not so pernicious to the fruit as I had imagined. Again, in the year 1783, which was seventeen years later, they made their third appearance to me; and they may be expected again in 1800. The female has a sting in her tail as sharp and hard as a thorn, with which she perforates the branches of trees, and in the holes lays eggs. The branch soon dies and falls. Then the egg, by some occult cause, immerges a great depth into the earth, and there continues for the space of seventeen years, as aforesaid."

The following is worthy of Pliny:—

"In the month of January, 1797, on a pleasant day for the season, I observed my honey-bees to be out of their hives, and they seemed to be very busy, excepting one hive. Upon examination, I found all the bees had evacuated this hive, and left not a drop behind them. On the 9th of February ensuing, I killed the neighboring hives of bees, and found a great quantity of honey, considering the season,—which I imagine the stronger had taken from the weaker, and the weaker had pursued them to their home, resolved to be benefited by their labor, or die in the contest."

Mr. Benjamin H. Ellicott, who was a true friend of Banneker, and collected from various sources all the facts concerning him, wrote in a letter as follows:—

"During the whole of his long life he lived respectably and much esteemed by all who became acquainted with him, but more especially by those who could fully appreciate his genius and the extent of his acquirements. Although his mode of life was regular and extremely retired,—living alone, having never married, cooking his own victuals and washing his own clothes, and scarcely ever being absent from home,—yet there was nothing misanthropic in his character; for a gentleman who knew him thus speaks of him: 'I recollect him well. He was a brave-looking, pleasant man, with something very noble in his appearance. His mind was evidently much engrossed in his calculations; but he was glad to receive the visits which we often paid him.' Another writes: 'When I was a boy I became very much interested in him, as his manners were those of a perfect gentleman: kind, generous, hospitable, humane, dignified, and pleasing, abounding in information on all the various subjects and incidents of the day, very modest and unassuming, and delighting in society at his own house. I have seen him frequently. His head was covered with a thick suit of white hair, which gave him a very dignified and venerable appearance. His dress was uniformly of superfine drab broadcloth, made in the old style of a plain coat, with straight collar and long waistcoat, and a broad-brimmed hat. His color was not jet-black, but decidedly negro. In size and personal appearance, the statue of Franklin at the library in Philadelphia, as seen from the street, is a perfect likeness of him. Go to his house when you would, either by day or night, there was constantly standing in the middle of the floor a large table covered with books and papers. As he was an eminent mathematician, he was constantly in correspondence with other mathematicians in this country, with whom there was an interchange of questions of difficult solution.'"

Banneker died in the year 1804, beloved and respected by all who knew him. Though no monument marks the spot where he was born and lived a true and high life and was buried, yet history must record that the most original scientific intellect which the South has yet produced was that of the pure African, Benjamin Banneker.